After only a few years of ministry and counseling, I came to the conclusion that almost nothing is more crucial to relational health and vitality than empathy. When people have the capacity for empathy, they have the capacity for compassion not only for others but for themselves. They can see others as separate from themselves and can use their experience and imagination to understand them and their point of view, even if it differs from their own. People who lack empathy are stunted and immature and incapable of real love.
There are many now (Edwin Friedman in A Failure of Nerve and others) who are saying that empathy is at the core of many or even most of our problems, whether on the level of family or society. As a result, they say, we cater to the least mature among us, spending our energy appeasing or satisfying them rather than acting out of our values and our goals. Through our pity, we allow them to underfunction, not taking responsibility for themselves while we, always well-meaning, take responsibility for them and keep them dependent. Immature people hijack us with their tantrums or with their neediness and we, with all our maturity and compassion and empathy, allow it to happen. I completely agree.
How can that be? How can I say that empathy is both absolutely essential to our wellbeing in relationships and at the same time agree with those who say it is destroying us as a culture?
I think it comes down to our definitions of empathy. When I use the word, I mean empathy as a way of thinking about other people as being separate from me, with their own thoughts and feelings and desires. It is a way of becoming unfused from them and removing myself from the center of the universe. Empathy becomes a way to step back from my own emotional process in order to see the possibilities that exist between us. This post on Brene Brown's blog is an interesting description of the kind of empathy I so passionately believe in.
When Friedman and others use the word empathy, they usually see it as a way of feeling about other people that leads us to compromise our beliefs and values and prioritizes the feelings and comfort of chronically immature people over our own good and the good of the whole. It is a way of feeling for people instead of feeling with them.
In Galatians 6, the apostle Paul tells us to "carry one another's burdens." Just a sentence or two later, he seems to contradict himself, telling us that "each one should carry his own load." Which is it? I believe that a healthy empathy allows us to carry one another's burdens in such a way that makes it possible for each of us to carry his or her own load.
So like most important things, it's both/and. Empathy, defined one way, is mature and life-giving. Defined another way, it masquerades as compassion but is ultimately destructive. It's up to each of us to choose and to choose wisely.